Disciplines and Dialogues: the present and future of Yoga Studies

By Theo Wildcroft

It’s a busy time for yoga scholars and writers at the moment. Next week sees the UK launch of independent scholar Matthew Remski’s new book: Practice and all is coming: abuse, cult dynamics, and healing in yoga and beyond, and last week saw the combination of two significant academic events: the SOAS Yoga Studies Week , and a two-day reading workshop for a future Routledge Handbook of Yoga and Meditation Studies, co-sponsored by SOAS and the Open University.

Sadly, it was a busy working week for me, so I missed much of the Yoga Studies Week, but it kicked off strongly with the Open University’s own Suzanne Newcombe and Karen O’Brien-Kop (SOAS), giving a lecture on new and interesting trends in yoga research. Apparently, my own research was highlighted, so I’m even sadder to have missed it! Other lectures I’d liked to have seen included Finnian Gerety (Brown University, USA), talking about sound and silence in yoga and meditation, Andrea Jain (Indiana University, USA) talking about yoga and neoliberalism, and Gudrun Bühnemann (University of Wisconsin-Madison, USA), whose work on yoga-related visual media is always fascinating.

Yoga Studies is a small but growing field, and highly interdisciplinary in nature, including Sanskritists and other philologists, Indologists, health scientists and the full range of arts, humanities, and social sciences found at your average Religious Studies conference! This means that Yoga Studies events are intellectually stimulating, but also a rare chance to hang out with friends one doesn’t see very often. The workshop was entitled Disciplines and Dialogue: The Future of Yoga and  Meditation Studies. The aim of the Handbook’s editors, Suzanne Newcombe and Karen O-Brien-Kop again, was to take each draft chapter and discuss it in turn in live peer review. I haven’t worked on a proposed text like this before, and it was a thoughtful and thought-provoking experience. Each chapter had a reader, separate from any blind peer reviewer already assigned. The reader summarised the chapter so far, with suggestions and comments, the writer responded, and then the group as a whole discussed how the chapter might evolve, and how it might sit within the greater volume. As the workshop title suggested, it was also a chance to have wider discussions about the field and future possibilities.

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Institutional Secrecy, Vatican Disclosure and Roman Catholic Priests’ Children

By Sarah Thomas

Are new and mass media nudging institutional secrecy into the open for a younger generation of Catholics? This is an interesting question to consider following the recent New York Times disclosure on 18th February this year; that the Roman Catholic Church has for years held a document containing a secret set of rules for priests who father children. Vatican spokesperson Alessandro Gisotti admitted to a New York Times journalist that “The Vatican has a secret set of rules for priests who break their vow of celibacy and father children…I can confirm that these guidelines exist…It is an internal document.” Gisotti went on to state that the document “requests” that the father leave priesthood to “assume his responsibilities as a parent by devoting himself exclusively to the child.” This disclosure is the first public acknowledgement by the Vatican that the Roman Catholic Church has an internal process for dealing with this most obvious transgression of the vow of priestly celibacy. Many biological children of priests (who have been trying to raise awareness about their existence by working with media outlets such as The Boston Globe since 2017), understandably feel it to be a ground-breaking moment.

It is also a particularly timely disclosure for my PhD research, that focuses on the phenomenon of Roman Catholic priests’ children and their use of new and mass media. I first became interested in this phenomenon as a research topic because, as a child of an RC priest myself, I began to notice patterns and themes emerging when listening to and reading about other priests’ children’s stories. These included priest’s children having experienced diverse forms of silencing behaviour from the Roman Catholic Church which caused isolation from their fathers – as well as from family, friends and communities – the same intention was behind: to keep the children hidden and unacknowledged.

My first contact with other priest’s children was through Coping International, an online support group for the children of Roman Catholic priests, run by Vincent Doyle, who is the son of a priest himself. Doyle has been an active campaigner for the rights of priests’ children since 2014. He was shown the Vatican’s internal document containing secret rules for priests with children two years ago during a meeting in Rome, called by Doyle to discuss the relevant issues and their impact. It was Doyle who worked with The New York Times to bring this recent disclosure to public attention, and other media outlets across the globe picked up the story immediately, causing this article to become one of the most widely reported stories initiated by a priest’s child so far.

What impact does this discovery have? The Roman Catholic Church’s much studied response to the clerical sexual abuse crisis highlights their predisposition to close ranks and maintain a wall of silence during times of scandal. There are of course very real differences with criminal behaviour and arguably the simple breaking of a promise, but are patterns of response likely to be the same? This secrecy has been the church’s attitude to priests’ children’s publicity so far, which is what makes the Vatican’s admission of this secret document so different and interesting.

Preliminary results from my twenty two interviews with Roman Catholic priests’ children point to the majority of them wanting change, and a de-stigmatising of the perception of them as objects of shameful transgressions. Comments on the Coping International closed Facebook page show how the majority of children active on the site welcomed The New York Times disclosure as an important milestone in their fight for recognition and acceptance.

While it would be naïve to think that one isolated media disclosure about Vatican guidelines will have any long lasting discernible effect on priests’ children’s lives (arguably the aspiration of Doyle and many members of Coping International), it nevertheless draws attention to a wider social movement that many more minority groups than priests’ children are involved with, one that involves resistance, small power shifts and just maybe the possibility of eventual change. There is an observable pattern of individuals coming together as critical mass, as seen with the #MeToo Campaign and other contemporary challenging of institutional authority from groups, where these groups use social and mass media to challenge power ‘horizontally’, rather than trying to engage with traditional ‘vertical’ power structures (as in the hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church). People are no longer remaining quiet because they are being told to from ‘above’. Being kept as isolated individuals can lead people to feel powerless, but being part of a critical mass leads people to believe they can affect change.

A phenomenon within and outside this, that sparked my initial question, is the increased use of social media generally – particularly by younger generations – to live life more publicly by regularly posting on new media outlets, as well as embracing the immediacy of email and other forms of digital communication. If this tendency towards openness and immediate communication is coupled with continued resistance to institutional authority, and the power of institutional secrecy is slowly diluted by a generational predilection for living life more openly – where individuals have the power to publicly post their own experiences without having to go through traditional institutional gatekeepers – then perhaps future generations of priests’ children will find current issues of shame and stigma melting away as institutional secrecy within the Catholic Church becomes unacceptable to younger generations of Catholics. After all, if a Vatican spokesperson unwittingly pinging an email across the pond can result in a worldwide disclosure for priests’ children, then surely anything is possible?

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New Degree | BA (Honours) Religion, Philosophy and Ethics

We are very pleased to announce that Religious Studies at the Open University has a brand new degree course, starting this autumn, in collaboration with Philosophy – the BA (Hons) in Religion, Philosophy and Ethics. While there has been a specialist Religious Studies route available in both the BA (Honours) Arts and Humanities and the BA (Honours) Social Sciences degrees, a named RS degree has been absent from the OU for a while, and it has been a long path to get one again. But this new degree underlines the relevance of the subject and the vitality of the department, and should ensure the subject remains central as the Open University continues the process of future proofing.

In this qualification you’ll explore human systems of thought and practice, both ‘secular’ and ‘religious’, in ways which allow you to engage with wide-ranging and often controversial issues affecting different cultures and societies. You’ll investigate a wide range of current questions and themes in these disciplines from both historical and contemporary perspectives. This includes the ethics of war, political justice, multiculturalism, religious nationalisms, the ‘sanctity of life’ and pilgrimage. In engaging with the core disciplines of religious studies and philosophy, you’ll develop critical skills and expertise in a range of key approaches and methodologies.

Key features of the course

  • Engage with key philosophical debates about ethical and other fundamental questions
  • Learn about the traditions of Christianity, Islam and Hinduism as they relate to various cultures and societies
  • Investigate selected classic and contemporary philosophers and a range of religious practices and beliefs.
  • Develop skills of critical analysis, empathy and communication relevant to a wide range of careers.

Find out more, including how to enroll to study with us, here: http://www.open.ac.uk/courses/qualifications/r45

Graham Harvey at the Counterpoint blog

Graham Harvey recently published a piece titled “Predators, Prey, and Snowdrops: Recognizing the Nature of the World” over at Counterpoint, a blog which aims to put differing systems of knowledge into conversation for the good of the planet:

Some Amazonian Indigenous people recognize two ways in which living beings relate to others, as predators and prey. More accurately, sometimes a being acts as a predator and sometimes they become prey. A hunter (human, jaguar, deity, cannibal, or other predator) sets out to find prey. But perhaps, somewhere along a forest path, they find themselves hunted. I’ve been thinking about these relations, off and on, for some time–inspired by reading the work of Eduardo Viveiros de Castro, Robin Wright, Laura Rival and other Amazonianists. Reading them alongside works by the philosophers Bruno Latour and Isabelle Stengers (who also read these Amazonianists) has led me to wonder what their observations tell us about the consumerism that marks ways of being human in late modernity or the Anthropocene–or whatever you like / dislike naming this era.

How are these predator/prey relationships helpful in grappling with our global culture and economy? Might the language of predator and prey enable us to see the workings of consumerist modernity more clearly? It certainly seems that sometimes we are preyed on or consumed by processes larger than ourselves. Extractive industries and aggressive marketing assault our world and ourselves. But we are not always victims. We also seek to capture and benefit from opportunities available to us. Even when threatened, we might actively rebel against those determined to turn what we cherish into commodities for further predation. We are not always limited as preyed-upon consumers.

Read the whole piece here.

 

Ancient Material Religion

By Jessica Hughes, Senior Lecturer in Classical Studies

This Spring sees the launch of a new research centre at The Open University, which involves some exciting collaborations between the Departments of Classical Studies and Religious Studies. The Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion builds on a long tradition of OU research in the areas of material religion and lived religion, as well as sensory approaches to sacred spaces and rituals. The Centre is based in the Department of Classical Studies, so its main focus will be ancient Greek, Roman and Etruscan material religion: nevertheless, one of our primary aims is to bring this ancient Mediterranean evidence into a productive dialogue with work on religious material culture in other periods and places, so we’ll be working closely with colleagues in Religious Studies and Art History, in order to gain a deeper understanding of the ways in which religion happens though material things – including objects, bodies and places.

Left to right: Professor James Robson (Head of School of Arts & Cultures, and member of the new Centre steering committee); Dr Jessica Hughes (Centre director); Professor Maureen Carroll (our guest speaker for the inaugural seminar of the Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion).

The Centre’s inaugural seminar last month was a fantastic start to our activities, and already showed how valuable such cross-disciplinary dialogue can be. Professor Maureen Carroll from the University of Sheffield joined us in Milton Keynes to give a talk on ‘Mater Matuta and her Sisters: Exploring Fertility Cults and Associated Votives in Early Roman Religion’. This seminar presented some of the results of Professor Carroll’s recent fellowship at the British School at Rome, including a new interpretation of the famous tufa statues from the sanctuary at Capua in Southern Italy. Afterwards, we recorded a panel discussion about votive offerings related to fertility and early infancy, featuring Dr Emma-Jayne Graham from Classical Studies (who talked about anatomical votives from sites in ancient Italy), Dr Marion Bowman from Religious Studies (who shared her research on the cult of St Gerard Majella in Newfoundland), and the artist Tabitha Moses, whose work has drawn powerfully on the imagery and concept of votive offerings. As well as sharing material from our own research or artistic practice, we explored how votives related to the broader themes of relationality and materiality, and how these objects help(ed) people to forge relationships – both with divine beings, and with each other – during the often anxious times of pregnancy and childbirth.

The recording of this discussion is available on the Centre website and embedded below, and we will be sharing more resources like this over the coming months. The Centre website also lists our upcoming events, including our official launch celebration, which will take place in Senate House in London on the evening of Monday 25th March. The programme for the evening features a keynote talk by Professor Esther Eidinow entitled “Magic: mind, material, metaphor”, and a joint presentation about the Centre’s work by members of the steering committee. Like all our events, this one is free to attend, and open to everyone, and we really hope that some readers of this blog will be able to join us! Also this month we will host a seminar in Milton Keynes by Dr Jody Cundy of Oxford University, who will be talking about votive offerings in Greek literary texts and inscriptions (21st March), and a ‘networking day’ in Camden Town, London (3rd April), which has a packed programme of talks and round table discussions, including a session led by Professor Graham Harvey and Dr Ailsa Hunt entitled ‘Ancient Trees, Contemporary Rivers: what does animism have to do with our environmental crisis?’.

We are very grateful to Baron Lorne Thyssen-Bornemisza for his generous support of the Centre, and we look forward to sharing more news of our research activities with you all in the future. Please do come and join any of our seminars or workshops, or tune into the website and Twitter account (@OpenMatRel) to follow our progress and discover our latest multimedia resources.

Fertility Cults and Material Religion podcast

Our own Marion Bowman took part in a podcast discussion with Professor Maureen Carroll, Jessica Hughes and Emma-Jayne Graham, “‘Mater Matuta and her ‘Sisters’: Exploring Fertility Cults and Associated Votives in Early Roman Religion”. This was recorded during last week’s London event of the Baron Thyssen Centre for the Study of Ancient Material Religion at The Open University 

Sarah Thomas in the News

One of our PhD students, Sarah Thomas, has been all over the news media this week, following the New York Times story revealing the existence of secret Vatican rules regarding priests who break their celibacy and father children, this Monday.

Sarah is working on the children of Roman Catholic priests, focusing on their transition from isolated individuals to group members via the medium of social media, with semi-structured interviews providing the main data source. Initial data analysis suggests that the process of priests’ children forming a critical mass and challenging their ‘silencing’ through media outlets not only offers new knowledge about themselves and issues of secrecy, power and authority in the Roman Catholic Church, but taps into and advances research on other contemporary challenging of institutional authority from groups including the #MeToo campaign and victims of clerical sexual abuse. So to see her appearing in the media is apropos indeed!

First, the CBS News video and article that was published yesterday can be found here.

She also took part in a live radio interview yesterday on BBC World Service, at about 27 minutes in.

And while it pains me to give them publicity, here’s Fox News using her work too.

Rastafari in Motion | Jewish Rastas?

By Hilde Capparella, PhD student in Religious Studies

My doctoral research focuses on diasporic and transnational contexts of Rastafari. I am interested in de-essentialising Rastafari, and over the next year or so I will be conducting fieldwork in Rome and London with different Rasta communities and groups. I see my approach as one that focuses on religion in motion, and it is an approach I began to develop when I decided to investigate Rastafari in Israel for my Master’s Thesis. In March 2014, I conducted two weeks of fieldwork in Israel, where I was hosted by a Rastafari family living in Ashdod.

Upon my arrival, I was surprised to see that their house was completely covered with Rastafari symbols and colours (see picture below). My senses were also submerged in the sounds of Reggae and Dub music playing in the background 24 hours a day. It is important to note that Rastafarianism appeared in Israel through books, radio, and  television, promoting reggae music and culture. During my short stay, what amazed me was to hear how the Rastafari language (the Dread talk) was used and mixed with Hebrew in everyday life, creating a new form of language.

Through my fieldwork, the main question I wanted to answer was why they embraced Rastafari so passionately. Despite identifying as Jews, they felt Rastafari to be more flexible than Judaism. In addition, because Rastafari relies on the Levitical code of conduct, for them it is easier to embrace Rastafari practices and symbolism, as it is already, in a certain way, part of their culture.

The most significant and emotional event during my stay was my participation in the Sabbath.  During this ritual, the whole family wore items with Rastafari symbols and colours. Whilst the parents were wearing the Tam (Rasta hat), their son was wearing a Kippa (Jewish hat) with Rastafari colours. During the prayer, they explained that because they embrace Rastafari they replace the Sabbath wine with grape juice, as Rastafarians cannot drink alcohol. They emphasised that, for them, Sabbath is a time to pray and stay with family and friends more than a time to go to the temple. In fact, after the Sabbath celebration, their friends came to visit them.

The picture at the top of the post was taken during that day. Just before to take the picture they all naturally united their fingers together doing the Rastafari gesture. This sign was first adopted by King Selassie, and symbolises Solomon’s Seal (or Star of David) to emphasise the King’s geneological link to King Solomon. King Selassie was the king of the Falasha, the Jewish of Ethiopia, despite growing up as an Orthodox Christian. Therefore, the symbol was adopted by Rastafari worldwide is used to signify their bond with Selassie. However, for Christian (generally Orthodox) or Jewish Rastafari, it symbolises also the link with the Selassie dynasty from David, to Jesus, to Selassie.

Through this short piece of fieldwork, I discovered a new blend of Rastafarianism and Judaism. As my doctoral research proceeds, I expect to expand on these findings.

Photos by the author.